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Bacteria Sent Into Space Behave in Mysterious Ways

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Colonies of bacteria grown aboard space shuttle Atlantis behaved in ways never before observed on Earth, according to a new NASA-funded study from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Recent findings provide important evidence of spaceflight’s effect on the behavior of bacterial communities and represent a key step toward understanding and mitigating the risk these bacteria may pose to astronauts during long-term space missions.

The research team, led by Rensselaer faculty member Cynthia Collins, sent the experiment into orbit aboard Atlantis’ STS-132 mission in May 2010 and its STS-135 mission in July 2011. Samples of the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa were cultured for three days in artificial urine. The space-grown communities of bacteria, called biofilms, formed a column-and-canopy structure not previously observed on Earth. Additionally, biofilms grown during spaceflight had a greater number of live cells, more biomass, and were thicker than control biofilms grown under normal gravity conditions.

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